4 Steps to Successful Succession Planning

by Jan 23, 2020

Author Thom Rainer and others have bluntly stated that the next big crisis in the North American church is the lack of successors for aging senior leaders. This is especially true for megachurches (churches with 2000 members or more). Regardless of the size of your church, succession is a topic that should be discussed with the senior leadership and the board. Too often, this topic is avoided and becomes the proverbial elephant in the room at many churches. 

The truth is, many churches slip into crisis when there is a sudden departure of a key leader. There are examples everywhere of once successful ministries sharply declining or even disappearing because of a poor transition from one leader to the next.

There is no success without succession.

It’s sad to see someone’s life work slip away into oblivion because they overlooked the importance of succession planning. 

So what should a pastor do?

No. 1 Begin a discussion with your board about succession.

I’d encourage senior pastors and their board members to read books together like, The Elephant in the Boardroom: Speaking the Unspoken about Pastoral Transitions or Next: Pastoral Succession That Works. Then begin a discussion on succession. Make it a regular agenda item for a year or schedule a planning retreat to discuss only this topic.

No. 2 Clearly define the mission, vision, and values of the church.

The clearer the board is with the direction of the church, the easier it is for them to find a future leader. Too often, churches without a succession plan rush into finding a replacement and make their decisions based solely on the perceived competence of the incoming pastor. Having a skillful leader and speaker transition into senior leadership is great, however, if the incoming leader has a differing mission and values, it doesn’t matter how skilled they are, the majority of these replacements will fail. It is best to find a replacement that carries the same mission and values, especially if the church they are taking over is successful. The exception to this rule is if the church they are taking over is in sharp decline, the board may want to intentionally find a successor with a fresh new vision for the church. Ultimately, a pastor with the same mission and core values as the existing church will make for the smoothest transition.

No. 3 Together with the board, come up with an emergency succession plan.

An emergency succession plan is one that takes into account the sudden absence of the senior leader. If the current leader were to suddenly die, have a moral failing and need to be removed, or some other major unseen event occurs that leaves an unplanned vacancy at the top, it can throw the church into a sudden crisis. Even the best boards and leaders have difficulty navigating a state of crisis in an organization and this difficulty increases exponentially if there is not a predetermined plan. It is wise for the current senior pastor and board to have a clear, written plan for succession in place for such an emergency.

No. 4 Establish a long-term succession plan.

The opening line of the book Next: Pastoral Succession That Works reads, “Every pastor is an interim pastor.” This is very true. One day, someone else will be sitting in your chair and preaching from your pulpit. So, why not plan for it?

I loved my conversation with Pastors Danny and Nathan Green of Skybreak Church in College Station, Texas. In his mid 40’s, Pastor Danny decided to establish a 15-year succession plan with his son, Nathan, who was in his early 20’s at the time. To be honest, I had never heard of a 15-year succession plan. After my interview with them, I became convinced that this is a wise strategy that should be considered by every senior leader.  

To learn about a 15-year succession plan and how it works, listen to my conversation with Pastors Danny and Nathan Green. (GoCast Ep. 017)

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